In Melbourne.--- A startling declaration from trainer Tim Butt could set up Saturday night’s $400,000 Hunter Cup for his fellow Kiwis.
Butt is the undoubted king of Australia’s richest standing start race, having trained the winner five times while his brother Anthony has driven seven Hunter Cup winners.
Tonight they have defending champion Mah Sish in the 3280m epic and their confidence has been boosted by a long overdue return to form in a support race on last Saturday’s Ballarat Cup card.
Mah Sish seems to have lost all his speed but ground his opponents into the Ballarat track last week so Butt has declared he will adopt similar tactics this week, even if that means going to war with Australian pacing legend Smoken Up.
Smoken Up has been greatly boosted by the Hunter race reverting from a handicap to a free-for-all and after drawing barrier four is expected by most to press on toward the lead, with many rival trainers happy to trail him.
Not Butt though, who says he wants Mah Sish in front and if he gets there he won’t hand over to Smoken Up, and would even attack him if the latter leads.
“I don’t think he (Smoken Up) is going as well as he can and the last couple of times he has lead he has gone too slow,” says Butt.
“So we will race him for the lead if we get away well enough.
“I know my horse has been struggling for a while before last week but he is back on the improve and he will be a better horse that last week.” The very real possibility of an early war in the Hunter plays into the hooves of the speedsters who are able to follow a hot speed, and two of the best of those are fellow New Zealand pacers Pembrook Benny and Christen Me.
Christen Me was brave but still unable to win the Ballarat Cup last Saturday and after his New Zealand Cup third in November there are some doubts over whether 3200m really suits him.
The best way around that is for him to be given plenty of time to find his feet and then swoop in the race later, which is how most sons of Christian Cullen perform at their optimum.
Butt’s early attack promise suggests that could become reality.
The fact Pembrook Benny is favoured in a Hunter Cup is one of the more unlikely stories of the harness racing season after he returned home from a Sydney campaign last season looking a spent force.
But training genius Barry Purdon has the nine-year-old in the best form of his career and sitting just off the speed he only has to race up to his New Zealand Cup fourth to be a huge hope for young gun driver Zac Butcher, who didn’t even have a licence when Pembrook Benny started racing.
Add in the enormously improved Franco Nelson and the surprise addition of Easy On The Eye and New Zealand has five chances in the race on the Australian Grand Circuit that has been kindest to our pacers in the last decade.
But the horse to beat is still local star Restrepo, who was outstanding winning the Ballarat Cup after being three wide the last lap.
The Ballarat Cup has been far and away the best guide to the Hunter Cup in recent years and Restrepo is a good standing start exponent with a top trainer and Australasia’s most successful ever reinsman Gavin Lang in the sulky.
He may have drawn the second line but along with fellow Victorian hero Caribbean Blaster he is a better follower than leader over long distances so his draw only serves to increases his odds without greatly decreasing his chances.
Earlier in the night Purdon’s pair of Our Sky Major (race one) and Our Maxim (race three) face tough draws in heats of the Victoria Derby set to dominated by Sydney’s all-conquering Team McCarthy.
Courtesy of Michael Guerin and The New Zealand Herald